Harlem domestic violence homicide calls for transparent psychological autopsy

The psychological autopsy is an individually designed case study that elicits a broad range of factual data regarding the behaviors of a decedent in the immediate day or days leading up to domestic violence homicide. The study is especially important when first responders and essential workers are involved all the while a pandemic ravages the city in which they live. Michael Sefton, Ph.D. Direct Decision Institute, Inc.

The recent domestic violence homicide in Harlem raises the specter of an essential city worker who killed his sister-in-law while his wife called for help. The police stopped the attack resulting in the death of Ubaldo Gomez but not before he shot and stabbed a women in the head with a kitchen knife. The fact is that domestic violence has increased during the pandemic as it does at other of life’s stress points. Did the fact that the alleged murderer was an MTA employee considered to be “essential personnel” have an impact on his mental health that may have been foreseen? What role, if any, did his role as an auxiliary police officer for the NYPD have in the terminal event? A psychological autopsy would answers these questions and establish a worst case scenario of frontline exposure to trauma and possibly offer insight into underlying history that may have been anticipated and stopped. Certainly the hierarchy at 1 Police Plaza will have an interest in this case. The Corona virus has added to risk of DV and DHV.

For too many women who are abused repeatedly during times of crisis there is no place to run and no one to keep them safe. Orders of protection are ineffective and without GPS monitoring and they are nearly impossible to enforce. In a 2011 domestic violence homicide in Maine, the protective order was violated 4 times by Steven Lake who killed his wife and children in Dexter before killing himself in June 2011. That alone was grounds to hold Lake without bail. No police agency removed access to his collection of over twenty firearms. The scene diagrams illustrate how Lake was armed with two firearms and a hunting knife. He murdered his children while forcing his estranged intimate partner to watch. It was thought that he planned a murder spree and he left 9 suicide notes. The final despicable act, as police arrived, was to attempt to light the bodies on fire.

In general, there is little interest in such a comprehensive post hoc psychological examination because there is no pending prosecution. Nevertheless, a psychological autopsy conducted on Lake in the Fall of 2011 revealed a clear timeline littered with red flag warnings that were missed or ignored. The research conducted in 2011 was done pro bono. It undertook over 200 hours of interviews and presented the Domestic Violence Review Board with over 50 recommendations for reducing high rates of domestic violence homicide in Maine (Allanach et al. 2011). The medical autopsy editorialized the case in its final report:

“Despite receiving some mental health counseling it is apparent, in retrospect that the degree of violence and anger possessed by the abuser was not realized.”                                                            Chief, Maine State Medical Examiner

This latest case in point involved an estranged wife, her sister, and the building manager in Harlem. The three were having dinner when someone armed with a firearm broke into the apartment. It was the estranged husband of one of the women. He was wearing his Metropolitan Transportation Authority uniform, and he had a gun according to the NY Post reports. In the meantime we have been told that the perpetrator was an auxiliary police officer and was licensed to carry a firearm. What triggered this paroxysmal violence? If it was foreseeable, then Mr Gomez should not have had access to his firearm.The psychological autopsy will address prior history of intimate partner violence, protection orders in place, work-related stress, recent health concerns related to the corona virus and Mr Gomez trauma exposure history, and his mental health in the days before the murder. 

Police officials said the transit worker, Ubaldo Gomez, shot his sister-in-law and stabbed her in the head with a knife, while his wife reached out for help. When Gomez refused to drop a 12-inch kitchen knife and tried again to stab the man, a police sergeant opened fire, killing him. In the end, there is always at least a single person who knows what is about to happen and often does nothing to stop it. A family member of Gomez suggested “he had some mental issue, something happened. He was always working day and night. He barely slept. He worked.” as quoted in the NY Post. Whether this duplicity and denial stems from cultural beliefs about the supposed “privacy” of DV, society must change the way in which law enforcement manages these cases. The buy-in from police, legislators, judges, probation, and the public-at large needs to be fully endorsed for real change to happen and for safety plans to work. Many states across America are planning to enact “red flag” rules that will remove weapons from individuals with a known history of domestic violence e.g. choking spouse during fight (Sefton, 2019).

Family members who may be in the crosshairs of these insidious events often see but lack the knowledge to stop the emotional and behavioral kinetics once they start. The fear of being murdered by an intimate partner creates emotional paralysis. In a large percentage of DV occurrences, financial and self-image influences as well as outright fear of the abuser by the victim limit moves toward safety. Therefore, a continuum of interagency cooperation is needed to effectively measure risk and understand the pre-incident red flags that are common manifestations of abuse and often forecast terminal violence, all of which occurred in this case. As the totality of these red flags comes into focus it becomes incumbent upon each of us to take action to prevent domestic violence threats from becoming reality (Allanach, et al. 2011).

It would seem to be vitally important that a transparent psychological autopsy be initiated to gain an understanding of the factual behavior that was observable and measurable in the days leading up to the murder especially given the likely unintended victim. Preliminary reports described Gomez as having a pattern of pathological jealousy and victim stalking. For her part, Gomez’ wife Glorys Dominguez called for help in the weeks prior to the terminal event seeking help.

Allanach, RA, Gagan, BF, Loughlin, J, Sefton, MS, (2011). The Psychological Autopsy of the Dexter, Maine Domestic Violence Homicide and Suicide. Presented to the Domestic Violence Review Board, November 11, 2011

Sefton, M (2019) Violence prediction: Keeping the radar sites on those who would do us harm. Blog post https://wordpress.com/block-editor/post/msefton.wordpress.com/5012 taken May 23, 2020.

Sheehan, K, Moore, T. Woods, A. NY Post May 21, 2020 https://nypost.com/2020/05/21/man-killed-in-nyc-police-involved-shooting-was-auxiliary-cop/?